Country Profile: Netherlands


16.77 million (2012, World Bank)

Official language


Total expenditure on education as % of GDP


Access to primary education – total net intake rate (NIR)


Programme Overview

Programme TitleVoorleesExpress
Implementing OrganizationSodaProducties foundation
Language of InstructionDutch
FundingGovernment Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment: Ruimte voor Contact programme, until August 2010; Ministry of Youth and Family: Vrijwillige Inzet voor en door Jeugd en Gezin (Voluntary Commitment by and for Youth and Families) programme, until December 2011; VSBfonds; OranjeFonds.
Programme PartnersMinistry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment; Ministry of Youth and Family; housing corporation Mitros; Evident Interactive; publisher Gottmer; Stichting Lezen (Reading Foundation); Stichting Lezen and Schrijven (Reading and Writing Foundation ); Sectorinstituut voor Openbare Bibliotheken (Sector Institute for Public Libraries); CINOP; Oranje Fonds; Sardes; Gottmer ; Entoenentoen; Pica Educatief; Peuter TV; Eenvoudig communiceren; Unieboek; MultiCopy, national housing corporation Aedes; national speech therapists oganisation NVLF; Landelijk Netwerk Thuislesorganisaties (home learning organisation); Stichting Actief Ouderschap (Active Parents Foundation); and numerous elementry schools.
Annual Programme CostsNational organisation, Platform VoorleesExpress €100,000. Local organisations: depending on the number of participants, varying from around € 40,000 to € 200,000.
Annual programme cost per learner: Between €500 and €800
Date of Inception2006

Country context and background

The education system in the Netherlands is one of the most advanced in the world. The country invests 6% of its GDP in education. It is the leading country on UNICEF’s children’s well-being classification. Education was one of the features evaluated on this list, and the Netherlands got the highest score. However, the reading abilities of many primary school children fall short of the required level. One in seven pupils has an inadequate reading level when they finish Year 3 of primary education. On finishing Year 4, the reading levels of one in three pupils are inadequate, while a quarter of pupils finish Year 8 at the reading level of a Year 6 pupil.

Many young students who do not acquire the required level of literacy nevertheless continue with their studies. Among adults, 35% of illiterate people graduated from primary education, while 26% have a secondary school diploma. Almost a third (30%) have a vocational degree and the rest (9%) have a pre-university education qualification or higher.

The risk of illiteracy is higher among women, low-skilled workers, older adults, first-generation immigrants and people who are unemployed. Reading problems are therefore disproportionately found among children from socio-economically and/or educationally disadvantaged families. Socio-economic status is a strong predictor of children’s school performance. What children learn about written language depends on how it is used in daily routines and rituals and the interactions that take place around those activities. It was in response to this problem that the SodaProducties organisation initiated the VoorleesExpress programme.

Programme Overview

The 'VoorleesExpress' (ReadingExpress) programme started as an initiative of two sisters in the Kanaleneiland district of Utrecht, an area with many immigrants, low social cohesion and high crime rates. The sisters wanted to change this, and started the foundation SodaProducties in December 2005. Their first programme, the 'VoorleesExpress', started in January 2006. SodaProducties develops projects that facilitate the exchange of knowledge between organisations in the field of volunteering and social entrepreneurship. One of the concerns of the foundation was with the language and literacy skills of Dutch children. In order to improve them, they created the VoorleesExpress programme. VoorleesExpress was initiated with 10 volunteers and 10 families from Kanaleneiland. The programme succeeded, and, from 2007, it was extended to other Dutch cities.

Today VoorleesExpress aims its programme at both immigrant and native families with low literacy levels. Franchises of VoorleesExpress were established in 59 locations in total. By the beginning of 2014 the programme had reached 3,314 families and had about 3,791 volunteers.

Aims and Objectives

Programme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

The VoorleesExpress stimulates language and pre-literacy skills development and the joy in reading of children from families with low literacy by reading books to them. The programme enhances children’s language development at an early age and encourages parents to have an active role in their children’s early development.

Reading to Children in the Home

For a period of 20 weeks, a reader pays weekly visits to the family. The reader stays for an hour, familiarising the children and their parents with the nightly ritual of reading to the kids. The reader gives the parents the tools they need to take over the reading in due course and tells the parents about other ways to encourage their children’s language acquisition.

Use of Voluntary Workers

VoorleesExpress is driven by a group of voluntary workers who are all carefully selected, trained and supported by a paid worker employed by a quality organisation such as a public library or a social welfare association.

Strong Local Networks

The programme aims for a network-based approach. VoorleesExpress works with partners in the fields of reading promotion, parental involvement and volunteer work and participates in several nationwide and local projects and programmes, such as BoekStart (BookStart), Taal voor het Leven (Language for Life) and Bibliotheek op School (Library at School). This helps offer families a number of ways to encourage reading and improve language development. Cooperation also enables us to refer people to other guidance organisations if need be.

Dialogic Reading

The readers of the VoorleesExpress use the so-called ‘dialogic reading style’. They implement this method by talking about what happens in a book with the children, encouraging them to predict what will happen next and matching the story to the child's interests, personal experiences and knowledge. The volunteers like reading, especially to children, and their objective is to transmit their passion for reading to the children and their families.

The Importance of the Parents

Parents have a central role in the process of helping children enjoy reading. Often, they have their own difficulties with reading and lack the self-confidence to inspire the children to read. The programme aims to provide them with tools and tricks to help their children. Parents have to be present during the reading sessions, and have to define what they want to accomplish and reflect on the difficulties they encounter. At the end, each family decides the approach they are going to take in the future.

VoorleesExpress also acknowledges the importance of strengthening the contact between parents and schools. Greater involvement of the parents has a positive influence on children’s in-school development. This gives children a head start in their education, an effect that lasts throughout their time in primary school.

Therefore, families are encouraged to give voice to their questions and to actively engage in their children’s further development.


The books used in the reading sessions are borrowed from local libraries. The parents receive a free library card, through which they have access to the books. In addition to the library card, the other most relevant resource is the “reading diary”. This book is a personal reading journal for each child. It rotates between the family, the volunteer reader and the teacher, so all of them add something to it.

The reading diary shows the number of reading sessions, the day and time of the session, and the contact details of the reader and the coordinator. After every visit the child ticks a reading session, making it clear when the reader has visited and when the project ends. The diary helps make reading a ritual.

The readers note the books that have been read to the children, which methods worked better and any other relevant considerations. It is useful also as a means of communicating information to the parents and the coordinator.

Additionally, it contains information about dialogic reading, books, linguistic games and libraries for the parents. It also gives suggestions for enhancing the language and pre-literacy development of their children.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Usage

The VoorleesExpress has a partnership with BereSlim, a provider of pedagogical computer games for young children aged between three and seven years and their parents and educators. Children can play educational games and see picture books. The products of BereSlim can be used at home, by schools, kindergartens and libraries. While it is very important to encourage children to use real books, digital/animated picture books can be a good support in promoting reading and language development. These picture book stories have been digitised and brought to life with moving images, voices, sound and music. Children comprehend the story significantly better and learn new words and sentence structures as a result. The VoorleesExpress also makes use of ICTs for public relations purposes. The programme website (www.voorleesexpress.nl) is a source of information on the programme to which volunteers and families can add. In addition, there is an online community for the volunteers to share their experiences, ask questions and get information. There are also Facebook and Twitter accounts for the programme, while project managers can access the VoorleesExpress intranet to order material, purchase documents and be in contact with each other. The programme is also working to develop a mobile phone application that will give parents the possibility of sharing their experiences from home.

Selection and Training of Volunteers

The volunteer readers are selected, trained and supported by a paid worker employed by an organisation such as a public library or a social welfare association. The volunteers come from vocational schools, universities and volunteer centres. The local VoorleesExpress offers training aimed at equipping volunteers with an understanding of how they can approach parents and make them more actively engaged in the development of the children.

Identification and Recruitment of Families

A family is eligible for the programme if their children are aged between two and eight years and have insufficient Dutch language proficiency, are at risk of developing a language delay, or dislike books and reading. Cases in which parents have difficulty reading to their children because they have low literacy skills, or because they do not know how to do it, also receive the assistance of VoorleesExpress.

The parents have to be willing to learn to read, be at home when the reader comes, help their children and, eventually, take over the reading themselves.

The children’s teacher, or a VoorleesExpress employee, decide – via an intake conversation with the parent - whether the project is suitable for the family, and they determine the specific needs of the family. Sometimes the children’s grades are considered or the children are asked to read a little to inform a judgment about vocabulary knowledge, comprehension level or the interest they show in reading. The parents are also observed to see if they are engaged in learning which books are suitable for their children and in thinking about how can they use dialogic reading to make books more fun. Nursery schools, primary schools, speech therapists, Centra voor Jeugd en Gezin (Centres for Children and Family) and infant welfare centres all collaborate on the recruitment of target families.

Organisational Structure

VoorleesExpress started in Utrecht but expanded to other locations using a franchise-based system. In each district of the country, one self-contained organisation, for instance a welfare or volunteer organisation or a public library, delivers the VoorleesExpress programme. SodaProducties supports the franchisees through training events and materials and the exchange of knowledge and tips. The organisation also enlists the help of nationwide networks.

At a local level, there are three fundamental roles: the project managers, the coordinators and the readers. The last two are volunteer positions. The project managers administer the VoorleesExpress franchise locally and can employ interns or project staff. Many project managers take care of several locations. The coordinators support five readers and their reading families and act as links between readers and project managers.

Monitoring and Evaluation of the Programme

VoorleesExpress monitors the implementation of the programme by conducting surveys of readers and coordinators on the activities of the VoorleesExpress. University students regularly conduct surveys about the programme. In addition, VoorleesExpress collaborates with knowledge centres that specialise in literacy and parental involvement, such as Sardes, Stichting Lezen and Schrijven (Reading and Writing Foundation), Stichting Actief Ouderschap (Active Parents Foundation), Stichting Lezen (Reading Foundation), SIOB (Netherlands Institute for Public Libraries), CINOP and CPNB (Collective Promotion for the Dutch Book).

Programme Impact and Challenges

Impact and Achievements

The effectiveness of the VoorleesExpress programme has been assessed by an independent committee of experts. In 2012 the project was included in the Databank Effectieve Jeugdinterventies (Effective Youth Interventions) of the Nederlands Jeugdinstituut (Dutch Youth Institute) (NJI) as an approved intervention programme. NJI said of VoorleesExpress that:

Children who participated in the VoorleesExpress programme later showed better language skills, understanding of the story, reading comprehension and vocabulary. They also enjoyed reading more. In the family home, the children have a richer language experience. Their parents enjoy reading to them more and appreciate the importance of it; visits to the library increase and there are more books around the home for the children to read; children look at books longer and more often.

VoorleesExpress has received the recognition of many organisations that emphasise its contribution to society. Among the awards received are the Meer dan handen vrijwilligersprijs 2012 (Over Hands Volunteers Prize), the Nationale Alfabetiseringsprijs 2010 (National Literacy Prize), the Achmea Publieksprijs 2010 (Achmea Public Price) and the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and Europees Platform Prize 2010.


“I was read to a lot as a child and now I’m a proper book lover. Reading and being read to broadens your horizons and teaches you so much. I wanted to share that feeling with my reading family!”

Volunteer Reader Mirjam

“Before enrolling in the project, Ryan showed no interest in books at all. Last week at playtime he suddenly marched over to the bookcase, grabbed a book, sat himself down and started to read!”



Many of the participating families experience difficulty with the Dutch language. The children have insufficient language proficiency to develop proper literacy skills and to perform well in an educational environment.

However, many native children also have difficulties as they grow up in a poor home literacy environment. It is not easy to reach out to them, as there is a lot of shame associated with low literacy skills among native families.

The VoorleesExpress is often confronted with families facing multiple problems. Many of them ask for additional support, before, during, and after participating in the project. They want additional help to enhance the language skills of their children or have other requests for help (like learning how to ride a bike, homework counselling, Dutch language courses for father/mother).

Lessons Learned

VoorleesExpress supported an increase in shared roles between parents and schools. For years, the school’s responsibility and that of the parents were kept separate. Increasingly, now, parents and schools are seen as having an equal responsibility. Greater involvement of the parents has a positive influence on children’s in-school development. Parental involvement at home proves especially effective in giving children a head start in their education and has a continuing impact throughout their time in primary school. Aware of this phenomenon, the VoorleesExpress has worked to increase collaboration between schools and families. It aims to become an expert in how to involve parents more actively in their children’s education. In order to succeed a project needs external support. VoorleesExpress created a network of donors and collaborators that made it possible to expand to different cities in the country and reach many families. A good public relations strategy is fundamental to get the attention and the support of the governments and organisations.


The continuity and growth of the VoorleesExpress depends on it being embedded in local and national structures. It has to have strong collaboration with local and national organisations. The VoorleesExpress also invests intensively in public relations by appearing at conferences and in the media, and by collecting donations to get financial support.



Ms Anne Heinsbroek, Responsable du programme, SodaProducties
Adresse : P.O. box 2157, 3500 GD Utrecht, Pays-Bas
Téléphone/Fax : +31 (0) 30 7600424
E-mail : platform (at) voorleesexpress.nl